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The Ultimate Play Date: Kids + Nature

10 fun things to do outside

Karen Z. —  June 23, 2014 — Leave a comment

School’s out. The first official day of summer has come and gone. Time for life to move outdoors.

For some kids (OK, some caregivers, too), heading out to the backyard, the beach, the parks, and the forest preserves can feel daunting—what do you DO once you’re out there?

“Hands in earth, sand, mud: building, digging, sewing, baking—these are what humans DO.”

PHOTO: A strip of astroturf is covered with an excercise course for ants made from twigs, stones, and other natural objects.

Build an ant playground out of sticks! Sue Dombro of the Forest Preserves of Cook County gave us tips for building one, adding this telling comment: “My daughter used to do this all the time, and now she’s a wildlife biologist.”

For fun, interesting, and education-based answers, we turned to a fun, interesting, and education-based crowd: the 190 teachers, home educators, day care providers, park district staff, museum employees, librarians, and just-plain-curious caregivers who came together at the Garden recently for our first Nature Play conference in May (sponsored by the Chicago Botanic Garden, Chicago Wilderness, and the Alliance for Early Childhood).

That morning, opening remarks were short, but sweet. A few thought-provoking highlights are quoted here. Then we did what any group of early childhood-oriented people would do: We all went outside to play.

At our outdoor “playground,” 19 organizations shared their fun, interesting, and education-based ideas for playing outside. You may recognize many from your own childhood.

1. Pick Up a Stick

How cool is this? In 2008, the stick was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame! It’s in great company: the jump rope, dominoes, the Frisbee, Tinkertoys and, yes, the Easy-Bake Oven are co-recipients of the honor. The possibilities of the stick are endless—it’s a musical instrument, a light saber, a wand, a fishing pole, a giant pencil for drawing in the dirt, a conductor’s baton, the first leg of a tepee, and anything else a child says it is.

2. Learn to Lash

If one stick is interesting, a pile of sticks has real 3-D potential. The art of lashing teaches kids to turn something small—two twigs lashed together—into something big: a ladder, a lean-to, a stool, a swing.

3. Find the Art in Nature

Twigs + stones + leaves + “tree cookies” + seeds = a nature “painting,” a sculpture, an imaginary animal, backyard trail markers, or utterly simple, charming drawings like the happy face made out of seeds shown with our headline.

“For children, the most powerful form of learning is with their hands.”

PHOTO: A squirrel made from tree cookies, pine cones, acorns.

Imagination can run wild when kids are outside.

4. Nature as Paintbrush

Sure, you can use a standard brush to paint with, but feathers, pine needles, and arborvitae segments not only expand the creative possibilities but also feel wonderfully different in the hand.

5. Kid-Made Kites

Send the imagination soaring with a simple paper bag and a couple of kitchen skewers—in moments, it’s a kite! And then there’s the process of decorating it with ribbons and streamers…

6. Cricket Bug Box

Catch a cricket (or buy a dozen for $1 at the pet shop). Friendly and chirpy, crickets are many kids’ first experience with the insect world. Even little kids can collect the foliage, food scraps, and water-soaked cotton balls to accessorize a temporary shoe-box habitat.

“Nature is children’s real home.”

PHOTO: A log and magnifying glass.

What’s under that log? Life.

7. Lift a Log

One of the simplest of all outdoor projects: lift up a log that’s been sitting on the ground and be amazed by the tiny wildlife that lives­ underneath it! Don’t forget to bring your magnifying glass.

8. Make a Magic Circle

Tuck a few wooden embroidery rings into a backpack. Placed on the ground in the woods, or the garden, or the sand, they become magical circles for kids to explore. What’s in yours?

9. D.I.Y. Dyeing

Rainy days need projects, too. Natural dyes made from vegetables (beets, onions), fruits (grape juice), or spices (turmeric, chili powder) transform undyed yarn or fabric into a personal style experience.

10. Paint Chip Color Hunt

One quick visit to the paint store can send kids off to hunt for hours, as they try to match nature’s colors to the humble paint chip card. (Handy to keep in the car for unexpected delays, too).

PHOTO: A variety of paint chip cards with flowers that match the colors on the chips.

Simple but engrossing: match the colors in nature to the colors on a paint card.

Looking for fun things to do with the kids this summer? June is Leave No Child Inside month, so Chicago Wilderness/Leave No Child Inside has organized all sorts of ideas for you on Pinterest!


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Having three daughters in middle school means trying to find a nice way to show my appreciation to all of their teachers. When I say “all” for the middle grades, that is not just three teachers any more, because they have separate teachers for each subject, as well as “special” teachers for art, gym, music, and library. And then there is the office staff members who were really nice and helpful during the year.

Do I need to give everyone something? Certainly not. But I would like to end the year on a pleasant note and say “Thanks!” for serving my three children—without spending too much money, that is. The answer is plants (which is what you expected from a Chicago Botanic Garden blogger, right?). 

PHOTO: A flat of 3-inch lavender pots.

This flat of lavender came in pots with care labels. All we need to do is add thank-you notes.

Every year, I go to a local nursery and buy a few flats of herbs or flowers. I prefer going to a local, small nursery or greenhouse rather than a large franchise store that sell other products. The plants tend to be in better condition, and supporting local businesses is good for the community. And it’s fun meeting and getting to know small business owners.

My daughters help choose the plants, which means we usually get purple flowers of some kind. If the plants come in cell packs, we transplant them to inexpensive containers. Otherwise, we give them as they come from the nursery. It does not have to be fancy to make everyone happy.

We make a thank-you note on the computer. It includes information about how to care for that plant. Then we use use bamboo skewers (left over from making rock candy!) or plastic forks to hold them in place.

PHOTO: An oregano plant with a thank-you note attached.

We used a bamboo skewer to attach a thank-you note and oregano care instructions.

PHOTO: Lily of the valley plant, with thank you not held in the pot through the tines of a fork.

One teacher requested a plant for a shady yard, so we included some lily of the valley in the selection, and used a fork to attach a thank-you note.

I set aside one plant for each daughter to personally present to her homeroom teacher. I bring the rest of the plants to the school office during the last week. After years of doing this, the office staff now anticipates the delivery as if it’s Christmas. (I also bring a package of paper lunch bags so teachers have a clean way to carry their plants home.)

The principal makes an announcement during the school day that any teacher who would like a plant can pick one up in the office—first come, first served. Even if a teacher doesn’t want to take a plant (I’m pretty sure the computer lab instructor at our school is not interested), he or she can enjoy looking at them and smelling them in the office. That takes care of everyone I want to thank. All plants are claimed by the end of the day.

PHOTO: Seed packed with a label saying, "Thanks for planting the seeds of knowledge."

Creative wording makes writing the notes fun.

If this works for me, it can work for you, too. If plants are too much of a hassle or expense, consider giving seeds instead. Attach a ribbon with a note to let the teacher know your gratitude. You can say something cute such as “Thanks for helping me grow!”

Or use a clever rhyme:

Just like the year I spent in your room, I hope these seeds germinate, grow up, and bloom.

Looking for another idea? There’s always Bottle Cap Bouquets, which delight teachers and mothers alike. Cheap and cheerful!

I wasn’t sure how much the teachers appreciated the plants until one teacher asked my daughter if I would be bringing plants again, and what kind they might be. She was looking forward to the end of school, but she was also looking forward to taking home a plant to start the summer.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Bottle Cap Bouquets

Kathy J. —  May 4, 2014 — 3 Comments

Miniature flower arrangements offer a charming and whimsical gift for mom, grandma, or anyone special. A nice feature of these tiny bouquets is that you can show off the beauty of small flowers that always sing backup to showier blossoms in large arrangements. Also, you can use aromatic herbs with small leaves as filler greens to add a pleasant scent.

PHOTO: The supplies for creating bottlecap bouquets.

The supplies for creating bottle cap bouquets.

PHOTO: a tiny bouquet of mini carnation, baby's breath, and a sprig of sage.

This little arrangement of mini-carnations, baby’s breath, and a sprig of sage has pink burlap ribbon wrapped around the bottle cap to mimic a fancy basket of flowers.

What you need:

  • A cap from a plastic bottle, such as a milk container or soda bottle
  • Floral foam (the wet kind)
  • A bunch of small flowers—I used mini-carnations, waxflowers (Chamelaucium uncinatum), and baby’s breath (Gypsophila paniculata)
  • Fresh herbs (thyme, rosemary, and lavender work well because they have stiff stems)
  • Optional: ribbon for added decoration

The directions are pretty simple.

Cut the floral foam to fit the inside of the bottle cap. Start a little larger than you need, and then trim it to fit. Push it into the cap. If your cap is narrow, like a milk bottle cap, you may want the foam to be above the level of the cap so there is enough room to hold the flowers. Otherwise, trim the top so the foam does not stick up. Add water to soak the foam.

PHOTO: hands tracing around a bottlecap and block of foam with a pencil.

Trace the cap on a piece of foam and then carve the foam with a butter knife to fit inside the cap.

PHOTO: hands poking flowers into floral foam.

Begin sticking the flowers into the foam. Here, we started with a waxflower in the center and added smaller flowers and herbs around it.

Cut the flower and herb stems about 3 inches. You can trim them shorter depending on the desired height in the arrangement. Stick them into the foam. You might want to start with one of your larger flowers in the center and then add smaller flowers and herbs around it.

PHOTO: a tiny bouquet of waxflower, baby's breath, and rosemary.

Waxflower, baby’s breath, and rosemary complete this delicate arrangement.

PHOTO: a tiny bouquet of baby's breath and thyme.

Not into pink? This yellow cap with baby’s breath and thyme is fragrant and cheerful.

When you are satisfied with your floral creation, you can either leave it as is—especially if the color of the bottle cap looks nice with the flowers—or you can tie a ribbon around the bottle cap. The best way to keep it in place is by using a few drops from a hot-glue gun. 

PHOTO: a tiny garden created in an old contact lens case.

Surprise! An old contact lens case becomes a miniature garden of waxflower and thyme that smells as amazing as it looks.

Tips

When using a shallow bottle cap, limit the number of larger flowers like mini-carnations or mini-daisies to three or fewer. Floral foam has limits. Adding too many flowers will cause the foam to fall apart and the flowers to flop over. If the first attempt suffers from floppy flowers, start over with a new piece of foam and add fewer flowers. 

If you really want more than three large flowers, use a taller cup, such as a medicine cup from a bottle of cough syrup, as the vase. Even then, take care not to overload the foam. This is a small bouquet, after all!

PHOTO: the final bottlcap bouquet arrangements in a group.

Precious and colorful, these-mini bouquets will stay fresh and bring cheer for a few days.

Floral foam is irresistible. Your kids, even teenagers, will want to play with it. Parcel it out in small pieces so they don’t play around with the whole block before you can use it. 

You can use the same procedure to make a mini-dried flower arrangement; just don’t wet the foam. Any way you make them, these little bouquets are sure to bring big smiles from someone you love. 

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Mushrooms reproduce by making billions of spores that spread and grow into new organisms. You can take advantage of this phenomenon to make a beautiful print on paper.  

How to Make Spore Prints

All you need are some fresh, open mushrooms, paper, and a bowl. You can use mushrooms found growing outside or buy them from the market. When selecting mushrooms for spore prints, look for these things:

  • The cap should be fully open with the gills exposed
  • The gills should look good, not wet and mushy
  • The mushroom should feel slightly moist but not wet; dry mushrooms will not work
  • There shoud not be mold spots on the mushroom
  • They should look like mushrooms you want to eat
PHOTO: Underside of a portabella mushroom.

This portabello mushroom is good for making spore prints.

PHOTO: Shiitake mushroom.

This shiitake mushroom may be a little old—notice the brown spots on the cap’s edges—but should work.

First, you should remove the stems. I use scissors so I don’t pull up or damage any of the gills.

Place the mushrooms with the gill side down on a piece of paper. Mushrooms with dark gills, like portabellos, have dark spores that show up well on white paper. Shiitake mushrooms have white gills and spores that will show up better on black paper. Some mushrooms make both dark and light spore prints.

PHOTO: Mushrooms, gills down, sitting on black construction paper.

These four shiitake mushrooms were placed on black paper. They will be covered with a bowl and then left overnight.

Place the paper on a tray or other surface that can handle something wet sitting on it because moisture from the mushrooms will soak into the paper and anything underneath it. Cover the mushrooms with a bowl to prevent them from drying out. Really ripe mushrooms will make a print in an hour, but I suggest that you leave them overnight to be sure you get results.

In the morning, carefully lift your bowl and the individual mushrooms and see what you get. If the paper absorbed a lot of moisture from the mushrooms, it may need to dry before you see the print very well—especially prints made on black paper. Portabello prints often show well-defined gills. Shiitake gills are not as straight and rigid as portabello gills, so you’ll get less gill definition in the print and a more wavy, swirling print. If your mushrooms are too wet, or are starting to rot, you’ll get more of a watercolor effect instead of a sharp print.

PHOTO: Mushroom spore print.

If all goes well, billions of spores will fall from the mushroom and produce a pattern that resembles the gills on the underside of the cap, like this portabello mushroom print.

PHOTO: Mushroom spore print.

Four shiitake mushrooms leave ghostly impressions on black paper. The swirled edges were made by the uneven surfaces of the mushroom caps.

PHOTO: Mushroom spore print.

The fine lines on this print look like they might have been drawn by an extremely sharp pencil, but the spores that compose the image are much smaller than the tip of a pencil.

A Little More about Mushroom Spores

Garden scientist Louise Egerton-Warburton recently told me, “Plants are cool, but fungus rules.” As a mycologist, fungus is her passion. Now, we aren’t really interested in competition or ranking organisms by levels of interest or importance because every living thing needs the others to survive. But the fact remains that we tend to forget about smaller things, especially those that tend to be hidden from view, so let’s take some time to meditate on mushrooms.

PHOTO: Stinkhorn fungus.

This stinkhorn fungus, Mutinus elegans, is growing out of the ground, but that is where its resemblance to green plants ends. It’s named for its obnoxious odor, which attracts flies that help distribute its spores.

Scientists used to think of mushrooms and other fungi as special kinds of plants. The problem is that, unlike plants, fungi do not get energy from photosynthesis. They are composed of different kinds of cells, they complete a different life cycle, and let’s face it: they don’t really even look like plants. So fungi are now grouped in their own kingdom of organisms, and nobody expects them to be anything like plants.

There are many different kinds of fungus, so for simplicity, let’s just think about the familiar mushroom with its stem and cap. This structure is actually the reproductive part of the organism, in the same way fruit is a reproductive structure in plants. (But we are not comparing plants and fungus!) Beneath the soil where you find mushrooms growing, there is a network of branching thread-like structures, called “hyphae,” which grow through the dead plant and animal matter in the soil and absorb nutrients. This is the main “body” of the fungus. As the fungus digests organic matter, it decomposes, making it useful for plants.

PHOTO: Laetiporus sulphureus fungus, or "Chicken of the Woods".

This “chicken of the woods” fungus, Laetiporus sulphureus, doesn’t look like a mushroom, but it also produces spores.

PHOTO: Mushrooms decomposing bark on the forest floor.

The fungus that produces these mushrooms is decomposing leaves and sticks that have fallen to the forest floor.

Back above ground, when conditions are favorable, a mushroom grows up from the hyphae. It matures and releases spores, which are like seeds. (It’s really hard to get away from comparing fungus with plants!) Spores are structurally different from seeds, even though they function to spread the organism in a similar way. Spores are microscopic and are so small that mycologists measure them in microns. A micron is one millionth of a meter.

PHOTO: A ruler measures the tip of a pencil lead.

How many spores could fit on the tip of a sharp pencil? A lot! No wonder the spore print is so fine and delicate!

Look at a metric ruler. See the smallest lines that mark millimeters? Imagine dividing a millimeter into one thousand equal parts. Fungus spores measure 3 to 12 microns. It hurts my eyes trying to imagine a spore sitting on my ruler. We can only see them when there is a mass of them on a spore print. Mycologists use a micron ruler built into their microscopes to measure the individual spores.

Tiny but essential: Fungus rules.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

While you are inside wondering if winter will bring another chilling polar vortex, or six feet of snow, or 40 degrees Fahrenheit and rain, join me in contemplating the sweetness of plants.

PHOTO: Burgundy leaves of the Bull's Blood sugar beet.

The common sugar beet, Beta vulgaris (this one is cultivar ‘Bull’s Blood’), is the source of our refined white sugar—not sugar cane!

All sugar comes from plants. All of it. Plants are the only thing on earth that can make sugar, and plants are made of sugars. Even plant cell walls are composed of a substance called cellulose, which is a compound sugar. Sugars from plants are the basis of our food chain.

Our favorite dietary sugar, sucrose, comes from the juices of sugar cane or sugar beets, which are boiled until the water evaporates, leaving the sugar crystals we all know and love as table sugar. Now that you know where your candy comes from, let’s use some sucrose to make a treat.

How to Make Rock (Sugar) Candy

Rock candy is pure, crystallized sucrose, and you can make it at home. This will take one to two weeks, so get started now if you want to give it to someone special for Valentine’s Day.

You will need

  • 1 cup water
  • 3 cups sugar, plus about a spoonful extra to coat the skewers
  • Food coloring (optional)
  • Flavoring (optional)
  • Bamboo skewers
  • Very clean, heat-resistant drinking glasses or glass jars (like Ball or Mason jars)
  • 2 clothespins
PHOTO: Tools and ingredients for making rock sugar candy laid out on the kitchen counter.

All the ingredients for the solution are assembled and ready to go. Note: the flavoring pictured here is not the best to use, because it contains alcohol. Use an essential oil for better results.

Directions

First, assemble the hardware. Cut the bamboo skewer to 6–8 inches, depending how long you want it. Attach two clothespins to one end. They will rest on the edges of your glass, suspending the skewer straight down in the glass without allowing it to touch the sides.

Cut a piece of paper towel with a hole in the center. This will go over the top of your glass to prevent dust from settling on the surface of the solution. Remove the paper towel and skewers; you’ll reassemble this after you’ve poured the solution in the glasses.

PHOTO: Glasses and skewers set up for making rock sugar candy.

Suspend the skewers using one or two clothespins as pictured here, and be ready to cover loosely with a piece of paper towel like the glass shown in the middle.

Important tip: The directions I followed (from a reputable source) instructed me to moisten the end of the skewer with water and roll it in some sugar to “seed” the formation of new crystals. When I tried this, the sugar crystals all fell off the skewer the minute I put them into the solution. Crystals will not grow on a bare skewer. What did work was dipping the skewer into the sugar solution (which you are about to make) and then rolling it in sugar. This kept the tiny sugar crystals stuck on the skewer and allowed larger crystals to grow.

Making the sugar solution. Pour 1 cup of water in a saucepan and heat to boiling. Then turn the heat to low. You do not want to boil the water after you have added sugar, or you will make a syrup that is stable and will not yield crystals. Add the 3 cups of sugar gradually, and stir to dissolve. Push down any crystals that form on the sides of the saucepan during heating to dissolve in the water. This takes some time! Your final solution should be clear—not cloudy at all—and you should not see any crystals.

PHOTO: Green-dyed rock sugar candy solution in a Mason jar.

You can choose to pour the liquid into two small glasses or one larger jar.

If you want to color or flavor your candy, now is the time. Add 2 to 3 drops of food color and/or 1/2 tsp of food-grade essential oils (like peppermint), and stir in thoroughly. Avoid using alcohol-based extracts like the bottle you see pictured in the blog. I’m not sure if this caused a failure during one of my trials, but I can say with certainty that I had better results when I used a flavoring oil.

Dip the end of the skewer a few inches into the solution and remove. Let the excess sugar water drain into the pot, and then roll the sticky end in dry granulated sugar to coat evenly. Set aside.

Pour the warm solution into the glass container(s), and fill to the top. With this recipe, you will get about 3 and 1/2 cups of solution, which will fill one jar or two glasses. You can scale the recipe up if you want more.

PHOTO: Rock sugar candy skewers.

After about eight days, you can see the cube-shaped sugar crystals on these skewers. The longer you leave them in the solution, the larger the crystals will grow.

Carefully lower the sugar-coated skewer into the solution, holding it in place with the clothespins. Cover lightly with the paper towel and place it in a safe location where nothing will bump it or land in it for at least one week—two weeks if you want larger crystals. Do not totally seal your glass or jar. The water needs to evaporate for the sugar to come out of solution and crystalize on the skewer. If all goes well, then over the next week you will see large crystals forming only on the skewer.

Got candy? Remove the skewer and drain the syrup. Eat immediately, or allow to dry, wrap in plastic, and save for later. Now that is what I call cultivating the power the plants!

One more thing: You can use string instead of a stick. Tie a small weight on the bottom and tie the top to the a pencil balanced on top of the glass so that the string hangs in the liquid.

PHOTO: A weighted string coated in rock sugar crystals.

The string was weighted with a metal nut so it would sink into the solution.

While you are waiting for your sucrose to crystalize, let’s contemplate where it came from.

Sugar from Plants

You probably know that plants harness energy from the sun to convert water and carbon dioxide into sugar and oxygen in a process we call photosynthesis.

PHOTO: diagram of a plant showing carbon dioxide and light energy entering the plant leaf andwater entering through the roots, while glucose is formed in the leaf and oxygen is released into the air.

This basic diagram shows photosynthesis in action.

The product of the reaction is a sugar called glucose, which is chemical energy that a plant can use to build plant cells and grow. The formula looks like this:

6CO2 + 6H2O (+ light energy) C6H12O6 + 6O2.

Translated, it means that inside plant cells, six carbon dioxide molecules and six water molecules combined with energy from the sun are converted into one sugar molecule and six oxygen molecules.

Glucose molecules are combined to form more complex sugars. Sucrose, or table sugar, has a molecular formula C12H22O11.  It looks like two glucose molecules stuck together, but missing one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms (or one water molecule).  

ILLUSTRATION: Sucrose molecule.

This sucrose molecule looks good enough to eat!

PHOTO: Sugar cubes.

Just kidding. It looks better in normal scale.

As I mentioned earlier in this post, plants are the only thing on earth that can make sugar. Through modern chemistry, food scientists have figured out how to extract and modify plant sugars more efficiently. They have also developed different kinds of sweeteners, because the food industry is always striving to develop less expensive ways to satisfy our craving for sweets, as well as supply alternative sweeteners for different dietary needs. Some sugars you may see on food labels include dextrose (which is another name for glucose), sucrose, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, maltose, and sucralose. All of these “natural” sweeteners were processed from plants, even though they do not exist without help from a laboratory.

Have you noticed that all of these sugars, including the sugars in plant cell wall structures, have names that end in “ose”? That is no accident. The suffix “ose” is the conventional way chemists identify a substance is a sugar. Go ahead, share that information at your next party as you consume goodies made from plant sugars. Having some chemistry facts at your sticky fingertips makes you sound smart while you’re nibbling on sweet treats.

PHOTO: Fresh produce in a wicker basket.

Yum!

Please enjoy sucrose crystals responsibly, as part of a balanced diet that includes forms of sugars closer to their origins. (In other words, eat fruits and vegetables, too.) And remember to brush your teeth!


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org